Exeter City’s under-18s secured the South West Youth Alliance division title on Saturday following a 1-0 victory over Swindon Town.
Despite preparations for Dan Green’s squad being hampered in a disruptive build-up in Wiltshire, the visitors started brightly, and they scored the only goal of the game after 14 minutes through Will Dean.
Both sides squandered chances afterwards, with City perhaps spurning the best of the openings.
However, the Robins grew into the match and they were unfortunate to come up against a resilient Exeter defence that repelled them on many occasions despite their best efforts.
With the away team able to keep their clean sheet, delight ran through the Grecian squad at the final whistle as they secured the important three points that was enough to win themselves the Youth Alliance trophy.
If a match could define why a team went on to win a league title, it would be Saturday’s contest between arguably two of the most talented sides in the region.
In tough conditions, with the start time delayed and the foul weather forcing the match to be played on a 3G pitch, the lead up to kick-off wasn’t ideal for the league leaders.
But, with the game eventually starting, the professionalism of the Devon club’s youngsters still saw Green’s men begin brightly, as they looked to take the game to the hosts in the hope of finding an early goal.
The visitors didn’t have to wait long to make a breakthrough. Following a well-worked corner routine, the ball fell to Dean on the edge of the penalty box. The defender unleashed a shot that beat the Town goalkeeper to make it 1-0.
The early goal gave City a platform to build from, and their passing game allowed them to create further opportunities in the half for James Dodd, Jack Sparkes and Josh Key.
However, the trio were unable to convert their respective chances, and the team were dealt a further blow before half-time when winger Joel Randall was forced off injured.
After the break though, Exeter once again used their movement well to find gaps in the Swindon defence. The away side created another two decent chances, but Dodd saw one chance narrowly miss whilst substitute, Joe O’Loughlin, saw his long mazy run also end with a shot that failed to beat the home goalkeeper.
With the contest still at a one-goal game, the Wiltshire club began to believe in themselves, and they found themselves seeing a lot more of the ball as the clock ticked past the hour mark.
Off the back of the increase in possession, more openings were created, and the Robins began putting the Grecians under more pressure.
Joe Belston was required to clear one effort from his own goalline, whilst Felix Norman, in goal for the league leaders, produced a magnificent save to keep his team ahead.
The Devon outfit continued to remain solid in at the back, and a committed and hard-working effort saw another clearance come from under their own crossbar late on courtesy of Dean.
However, despite the number of chances the hosts were able to create, they were unable to put find a leveller, which arguably came down to the resilience of the league leaders, and their determination to come away from the match with a clean sheet.
It meant that, when the referee did blow for full-time, following a match that showed off all of the characteristics of the Exeter team, a jubilant Green, as well as everyone else associated with the club’s academy, were thrilled with not just another victory, but a league title too.
Exeter City under-18s coach Dan Green, said: “It was a really positive, resilient and determined performance from the team. Swindon are a tough opponent, and they were one of two sides that had beaten us already this year. On the day we showed a fantastic team effort, with some great individual moments.
“We had created the better chances up until the 60-minute mark but didn’t manage to take advantage of these chances. After that, they had the better opportunities, but credit has to go to the boys, keeping the clean sheet was vital. They had plenty of chances but we showed we were strong, committed and hard-working.
“In a way, this match summed up how we have managed to win the league this season. People can point to the number of goals we’ve scored, but at times this year, we have won matches by digging deep and showing our resilient and hard-working characteristics. At moments during those games, we’ve put bodies on the line to make blocks and tackles which has contributed towards a number of our narrow victories.
“Credit has to go to the whole of the academy. We have to acknowledge the players’ hard work and commitment, not just this season but over the many years they have dedicated themselves to their development. I’m really pleased the players have seen their hard work rewarded with the league title.
“However our domestic season is not over. We have to play a very good Oxford United side in the EFL Youth Alliance Cup South Area semi-final this Saturday. We are well aware that we will need to be at our very best once again and they have proved to be tough opponents for us already this season. If we can show the same level of commitment as last weekend, hopefully we will be able to secure the right result and get to the final.”
Exeter City under-18s: Felix Norman, Jordan Dyer, Will Dean, Josh Hancock, Mitch Thomas, Harry Kite, Joel Randall, Josh Key, James Dodd, Jack Sparkes, Lucas White. Subs not used: Jack Arthur, Joe Belston, Joe O’Loughlin, Josh Williams